Think of your colleague on the next computer, or the person who lives in the house opposite. What do you know about them? Their immediate family’s names, probably. Pets, maybe. Jobs, interests, what they got up to at the weekend? Bar a few gaps, you could probably give a pretty good potted history of these acquaintances. Now what about your cleaner?
It is a question that many of us should be equipped to answer, given that one in three UK families are now employing someone to take on their domestic labour – with many thought to pay less than the new national living wage. A study by insurers E-sure uncovering this also reveals that the outsourcing of labour is most prominent among under-35s, and that one in four “modest” households – where annual earnings are less than £20,000 – regularly employs domestic staff. This emphasis on those doing the hiring conveniently renders the workers themselves invisible.
While there’s nothing uniquely exploitative about domestic labour as a concept, the reality of gendered capitalism in the UK is that women make up the workforce in the majority of low-paid jobs: a staggering 90% in the domestic and care industries. Undocumented migration and cash-in-hand payments mean accurate data is hard to come by, but it is estimated that migrants made up 27% of workers in elementary cleaning occupations in 2014, disproportionate to their 13.1% share of the UK’s population.
Cleaning is work that women should do for free, so goes the logic, and so it’s left to those most desperate for jobs to pick up the slack – often at less than minimum wage and with no guaranteed hours.
Feminism has always been good at discussing women and work, but traditionally has been poorer at seeing the bigger picture. On the one hand we can join Sheryl Sandberg and Melissa Mayer in celebrating the handful of women who have made it to the top of FTSE 100 companies or multinational organisations; on the other we can join the feminists tirelessly talking about a “second shift” and the persistent under-valuing of what is seen as “women’s work”. Rarely do we acknowledge that every woman stepping up from the latter to the former leaves a vacancy for another woman to fill.
This presents a problem for high-flying feminist women who see the rejection of domestic labour as liberation from tradition and a chance to further their careers and ambitions. Why clean the bedroom when you could be sitting in a boardroom? But this individualistic model of equality focuses on women gaining power rather than feminists gaining influence, and it does nothing to improve the material lives of less privileged women. Your ability to afford expensive things means very little to the cleaner dusting them for you, and even less to the family she is working to care for. It’s a peculiarly middle-class feminism that decries objectification on page 3 of the Sun, but which trips over the woman scrubbing your floors on the way out of the door.
The unfortunate fact is that mess and dirt will always exist, and someone will always have to clean. The feminist response, then, isn’t to keep shifting undesirable domestic labour to one another but to challenge the perception that it should be negotiated between women alone. Only then can we really start to question why domestic jobs should be valued at a lower premium than any other labour, resulting in work that is insecure, inflexible and isolating.
Cleaners might be frustrated with their lot, but with no formalised contract there’s a big risk associated with saying so – and unions don’t really enter the equation when you go from an advert on Gumtree to a cash-in-hand paycheck without seeing any other staff in the course of your day. It’s not about cleaning, it’s about workers’ rights.
It’s not a case of being for or against an industry that will always exist regardless, but of being for dignity and security in employment and against the exploitation of vulnerable workers. While transnational policy-makers and governments have an obvious role to play in enshrining labour rights, individuals and families outsourcing domestic duties also have a responsibility as employers to ensure safe and comfortable working conditions with wages and benefits to match.
In an ideal world there would be no such thing as feminised labour and all work would be valued equally, leaving us with no ethical dilemma – feminist or otherwise – about outsourcing. As it stands, the tension between a clean house and a clean conscience might still be a difficult one to reconcile.